President Obama and Janet Yellen / JEWEL SAMAD, AFP/Getty Images
WASHINGTON - President Obama called on Republicans on Tuesday to back a 90-day extension of jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, arguing that if the "lifeline" is not restored it will have a ripple effect that will undermine millions of workers and their families in 2014 and slow a modestly growing economy.
Benefits expired for approximately 1.3 million Americans who have been jobless more than 27 weeks shortly after Christmas, after lawmakers did not extend the program as part of a bipartisan budget agreement before leaving Washington for the holidays.
"A lot of our friends, a lot of our neighbors have lost their jobs and they are working their tails off every single day trying to find a new job," said Obama, who was flanked by several jobless Americans for his remarks at the White House on Tuesday. "As the job market keeps getting better, more and more of these folks will find work. But in the meantime the insurance keeps them from falling off a cliff. It makes sure they can pay that car note, so they could go to that interview. It makes sure they can pay that cellphone bill, so that if someone calls back for an interview they can answer."
Retelling what one of the unemployed workers who attended the speech told him, Obama added, "Do folks really think that cutting this benefit will make someone hire me?"
The president's renewed call came shortly after the Senate passed a procedural vote, clearing the way for the Senate to consider legislation to renew emergency unemployment insurance sponsored by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-Nev. Six Republicans, including Heller, joined 54 Democrats to clear the 60-vote threshold needed to break a filibuster.
The bill still needs to clear the Senate, and Obama and Democrats face an even tougher battle in the GOP-controlled House.
House Speaker John Boehner said on Tuesday that he told the White House a month ago that any extension must be paid for and "include something to help put people back to work."
"To date, the president has offered no such plan," Boehner said in a statement. "If he does, I'll be happy to discuss it, but right now the House is going to remain focused on growing the economy and giving America's unemployed the independence that only comes from finding a good job."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday repeated the argument that many of his fellow Republicans have made: Any extension of emergency unemployment benefits should be offset with spending cuts elsewhere. The 90-day extension would cost $6.5 billion.
"There is no excuse to pass unemployment insurance legislation without also finding ways to create good, stable, high-paying jobs - and also trying to find the money to pay for it," McConnell said. "So what I'm saying is, let's support meaningful job creation measures, and let's find a way to pay for these UI benefits so we're not adding to an already unsustainable debt."
But Obama and fellow Democrats have rebuffed GOP lawmakers' calls for spending cuts elsewhere in exchange for extending unemployment benefits. The White House notes that Congress has extended emergency unemployment insurance time after time with no strings attached during periods of high unemployment - including five times during the George W. Bush administration. The current U.S. unemployment rate stands at 7%.
Obama was introduced at Tuesday's event at the White House by Katherine Hackett, an unemployed woman from Moodus, Conn., who is struggling to make ends meet.
As she searches for work, Hackett said she eats less and wears a coat around the house to cut back on her heating bills.
"I'm not sitting home living the good life," Hackett said.
Obama also took aim at lawmakers such as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who have suggested that the extended insurance benefits dissuade long-term Americans from rejoining the workforce.
"That really sells the American people short. â?¦ I can't name a time when I've met an American who would rather have an unemployment check than the pride of having a job," Obama said. "The long-term unemployed are not lazy. They're not lacking in motivation. They're coping with the aftermath of the worst economic crisis in generations."
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